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Sustainable Seafood Swims Into the Mainstream

My first Culinary Trends article of 2011 has finally arrived! I chose to write about Sustainable Seafood for this issue, a more serious topic than my previous articles on flowers, eggs, and foraging. Because this is a very complex, difficult subject in nature, I took a more serious tone and included longer quotes from the experts that I interviewed. But don't worry, I still managed to throw in plenty of fishing/ocean/water puns!

Below is the full, unedited version. Enjoy!

Sustainable Seafood Swims Into the Mainstream

For hundreds of years the world has believed in the ocean’s limitless supply of seafood. So why now has the issue of sustainability come to the forefront? Chef Christian Graves of J-Six Restaurant in San Diego believes that it stems from an increased general awareness of where our food comes from. “People know where their wine is produced, where their vegetables come from, where their poultry and meat is raised. Fish are just the last stage of this movement.” But it’s more than just a desire to know where our food originates. Bluefin tuna, Chilean seabass, orange roughy; all of these fish are now on the verge of extinction. As Casson Trenor of San Francisco’s sustainable sushi restaurant Tataki notes, “It’s simply the desire to keep seafood around.” People are now realizing that, in fact, there are not plenty of other fish in the sea and that major changes must be made to preserve our seafood supply.

Fear of the Unknown

Trenor, like many others, believes that restaurants must not view sustainability as a passing trend, but as simply the right thing to do. So why are so many chefs hesitant to take the plunge? For many, higher costs are a major concern. Chef Jason Kwon of Japanese restaurant Joshu-ya in Berkeley admits that transitioning a restaurant to a strictly sustainable menu can be a daunting challenge, and that chefs must be ready to incur undesired costs. Patrick Glennon of Santa Monica Seafood, a Southern Californian distributor committed to the cause, understands this fear. “If you’re looking for something sustainable that’s under quota management, like Alaskan halibut, there is only a certain amount of fish that can be caught during a certain time of the year. If you have more and more people wanting that product, costs are going to go up no matter what.” However, he notes that the cost on sustainability is a moving target. “For example, if there are a lot of local white sea bass available one season, then distributors can keep costs down even though it’s a sustainable option.” Despite the potential costs, Chefs like Kwon and Graves believe that if you’re using great product, the long-term benefits will greatly outweigh the short-term expenses. Graves explains, “The more restaurants start practicing it, the more common and competitive it’s going to be, the lower the prices will be. When it becomes the status quo because it’s the right thing to do, the difference in costs will seem insignificant.”

Restaurants are also reluctant to explore the uncharted waters of sustainability for fear of losing customers who are expecting to see well-loved, unsustainable options on the menu. However, many believe that this is a bogus excuse. Chef Andrew Welch of The Basin in Saratoga explains, “I took my Ahi Tuna off of the menu recently, which was painful to do - it was one of my top-selling, signature dishes. Since then, I’ve had to explain to customers why we made this change, and after hearing the reasoning, 99% of them respect our choice and are actually excited about our commitment to sustainability.”

Trenor holds a similar opinion, “People don’t have enough confidence in the American consumer. Just because certain ingredients are not being used doesn’t mean the quality of the food is compromised. Instead of taking items off completely, chefs just need to find new, interesting things to add to the menu.” At Tataki, nontraditional choices such as scallops and crawdads are used in the Russian Roulette roll, and much effort goes into making the “little, ugly, humble fish” like mussels, oysters, clams, and mackerel popular amongst diners. He advises chefs to have faith, both in the customers and themselves. “Don’t be surprised to try something new. It may not be something that you or your customers are used to but if you put your effort into it, the customers will understand because your passion will come through in the dish.”

Chef Gary Rust of Yankee Pier, one of eight national restaurants named a “Seafood Champion” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, agrees that it’s his job to search out substitutes that make the customer happy: Arctic char instead of salmon, or local halibut or Californian sea bass when Alaskan halibut isn’t available. He encourages hesitant chefs to look at sustainability in a positive light by seeing all of the things you can use. “If you feel bound to using a certain ingredient and place little significance on its quality or how it was sourced, that’s when you’ll produce bad results. It’s when you cook freely and with an open mind that you’ll have great food.”

A Sustainable Education

Give someone a red-listed fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to catch sustainable fish, and they’ll eat for a lifetime. Unfortunately, making the commitment to sustainable seafood is the easy part - it’s understanding the various factors that affect sustainability that is the real challenge. Chef Welch admits, “I’ve made tons of mistakes in the past, it takes a long time to really understand what’s good and what’s bad. It’s a constant learning experience.” While there are numerous factors that play into making a certain stock sustainable, Chef Welch primarily focuses on how it’s caught. “For me it’s method of catch. If you’re catching swordfish in a sustainable way, you’re harpooning them, you’re getting larger fish, 200-300 pounds, one at a time. But when you’re casting mile long hooks that catch 5-10 pound fish, you’re not even allowing them to prosper. Wild salmon is another example: when they’re trawl caught or hook caught and you’re not putting a net across a river bed, blocking them from going up the river to breed , you’re allowing them to reproduce.” However he notes that other aspects, such as the breed itself, are also very important. With so many factors playing into the idea of conscientious fishing, how can someone ever fully grasp the concept of sustainability? Luckily, there are more resources available to chefs than ever.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is the most established source for US fishing, recommendations, as well as lists of restaurant and business partners across the country. Santa Monica Seafood is also an excellent source of information. Gleeson explains, “We hold sustainable seafood luncheons, where we invite 60 chefs to a top-rated restaurant in order to teach them. We bring in scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to talk about the issues. We bring in suppliers like Loch Duart, one of the few fisheries doing farmed salmon in a conscientious manner. We bring in the fisherman or farmers to talk about what they’re doing. It’s an open forum for people to understand sustainability and see the importance of it. That’s why we educate, develop the website, and are constantly blogging on sustainable options. We’re trying to be the Wikipedia for the seafood industry.” With so much documentation, any chef feeling like a fish out of water can gain in-depth knowledge about all aspects of sustainability, including fishing and farming methods, seasonal and local stocks, overfishing, endangered species, by-catch, habitat damage, and industry management.

Traceability and the Importance of Relationships

Even for the most educated chef, it can be difficult to find trustworthy suppliers who can guarantee sustainable origins. Some distributors, like Santa Monica Seafood, make it easy for chefs to understand exactly where their seafood is coming from. “There’s a certain percentage of every pound that we buy that goes to a fund to work for sustainability. That fund allows Logan, a marine biologist who heads the company’s Responsible Sourcing Development Program, to specifically go to the places we buy from. We expect places to hit the benchmarks we put in place, and we’re not just taking what people tell us for granted.”

However, this sort of policing is rare, and not every restaurant has the power to trace what they buy perfectly. Chef Rust and many other chefs insist that it is vital to have good relationships with farmers, fish mongers, and distributors. “For the most part I’m pretty close with the people I buy from, so if they tell me it’s a sustainable product, it’s going to be.” And, through all of the documentation, chefs can find other restaurants, distributors, and experts in the field who are equally committed to the cause and can begin forming relationships with like-minded industry professionals.

Trenor readily admits that fraud in the seafood industry is rampant, so he insists on seeing a producer tag, or a Bill of Lading, which is a receipt that comes from the producer to the distributor. “You have to use a distributor willing to use that. You have to demand it from them, tell them you want to verify how it was caught and what it is, and they’ll either work with you or not. We only use distributors that can provide that and more and more distributors are beginning to realize that selling sustainable options with proof of their origins is the way forward.” Trenor also stresses the importance of using the information provided by sources like the Seafood Watch’s Seafood Guide to choose fish that are on the green or yellow list. “When you do this, the fish itself is not as dangerous in terms of where you’re sourcing it. We get the traceability we need.”

Although the concept of sustainability is complicated, as Glennon puts it, “When you talk about sustainable seafood there’s no one answer and no one option. It takes chefs to ask questions and demand answers, because in the end, their clients will.”

Additional Resources
Montery Bay Aquarium’s Seafood WATCH

The Seafood Watch Chart of Alternatives

Santa Monica Seafood

One comment

  1. Markus says:

    Well done.

    A question that comes to mind relates to the influence American preferences and sensitivities have on the rest of the world, specifically, is an increased American awareness of harvest sustainability noticed/copied elsewhere about the planet?

    And this - I sat in a lecture last week on sustainability in urban planning. One of the speakers was a planner from San Diego. That 90% of their water is imported from the Sac Delta seems to fly in the face of his topic was apparently lost on him. But it made me smile.

    Thanks for what you do!

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